The oil spill in the Gulf last year was a powerful reminder of the potential destruction of our everyday choices. Drilling for oil is not just about fuel for vehicles–nearly everything we consume has some amount of plastic. So the more mindful we become about routine, small decisions, the more positively we may affect the environment.
Though this post doesn’t focus exclusively on the oil spill, all the photos relate to it. After it began last year, my friend Eli traveled to areas yet unaffected, as well as coastlines already suffering. He captured not only the ugly consequences of the disaster, but many examples of what is worth respecting.
I consider myself a passionate environmentalist. I don’t drive a hybrid, although walking and my bicycle displace my highly gas-efficient car whenever possible. However, I think most environmental decisions reside in much smaller decisions than vehicle choice. For example, knowing how toxic most of the food supply is in this country was one of the main reasons I became vegetarian. (If you’ve missed Food, Inc., Super Size Me, or Fast Food Nation, I highly recommend them. On an empty stomach.)
More broadly than food, I live as minimally and efficiently as possible, a lifestyle practiced by multiple generations of my family. All of my grandparents grew up in the Depression; their legacy has molded my family into unplanned environmentalists.
In the early twentieth century, my grandmother’s family traveled in a covered wagon through remote areas of Texas and New Mexico. Decades later, before my parents had children, all of their possessions fit into their car. (Most likely, their meager record collection outnumbered all other possessions.) For years they lived in furnished apartments, with minimal appliances and few luxuries. Over the years, they have inherited some of the only remnants of my grandmother’s covered wagon life: handmade quilts stitched by her mother. Although the patterns are traditional, the random fabric scraps often do not match (to a large degree why I like them so much). When I moved out, I acquired two quilts that I still use on my bed.
My parents don’t use large garbage cans, thus no need to buy large garbage bags. Instead, they recycle grocery bags as trash bags, a cheapskate habit that I adopted. And the environmental lessons go both ways: several years ago, I convinced my mother to use reusable shopping bags. And though grocery bags seem inconsequential to some, I haven’t obtained any directly from a store in over ten years. Because I cook nearly all the food I eat, my frequent trips to the market could result in plenty of bags. Yet frequent cooking generates far more compost than trash, particularly in comparison to packaged food. So I minimize my need for bags at both points of the cycle.
My only childhood memories of new clothes were those for special occasions. Family friends always donated clothes to me and my brother. I had T-shirts from events and schools I never attended, stores in which I never shopped. Choosing clothes was in essence flea market shopping—rummaging through a box for the items I chose to keep. A childhood of hand-me-downs created my preference for vintage, and never have I felt deprived by not following trends. On the rare occasions that I shop for clothes (I hate shopping), I prefer consignment and thrift stores. (They’re cheaper too.)
Regardless of the source, clothes all reached the same end in my house: the rag bag. We never quilted, but we utilized scrap clothes for a multitude of tasks: dusting, checking car oil, wiping up spills, cleaning. Even though my parents could have easily afforded feather dusters or paper towels, they chose to reuse what we already had. In the rag bag (really a box) dwelled clothing relics far past their expiration date of intended purpose. Although nicer clothes always went to charity, nothing was too good, or perhaps too poor, and certainly not too embarrassing, for the rag bag. My brother’s Transformers and Thundercats underwear, my father’s undershirts with yellow armpits, tube socks, road race T-shirts, old flannel pajamas, and my frilly Easter dresses. The house was devoid of paper towels. Nowadays my rag bag (actually a bag), predominantly old socks, lives underneath my kitchen sink. Not purchasing paper towels eliminates a small but recurring expense.
Until I went to college, my parents used a rotary phone, though they had others. It still worked, so they found no need to replace it. Even now, my father’s home office has a bulky cordless phone from my college years. Still works. We all drink out of reusable water bottles, limiting both expense and trash. And we all still swap clothes and other items. My bathroom and kitchen both have some of my parents’ wedding gifts, which they received more than forty years ago. (I hate shopping for anything, not just clothes.)
As a child I assumed my family’s lifestyle was normal, whereas now I recognize how unusually my parents chose to live. They chose simple living for the sake of having enough money to support their family, with the welcome side effect of lessening their environmental impact. The economic consequence most obvious in my life is the luxury of not needing to earn much money. (In part because I do not own a home.) Living without debt—simply, economically—has always felt liberating.
Affluenza permeates our daily life so seamlessly that most people think nothing of the difference between our lives and those of most of the global population. However, the availability of extravagance doesn’t justify the indulgence. Many Americans can easily afford bottled water, and every year more people undergo gastric bypass surgery. In contrast, most of the world suffers from the lack of fresh water. And thousands starve daily.
The economic consequences of affluenza are equally grave. Overconsumption creates enslavement to debts. We live in a global economy; the lowest immediate price drives commerce and the standard of living. Yet money is not the only economic cost: fast food costs less than organic, but the costs to human health and the planet are far steeper.
Though relief efforts are important for the Gulf spill, that disaster is a symptom of overconsumption. A more important shift is the decline of demand (i.e. purchase and consumption) of fossil fuels. Without changed behavior, we’ll continue the debate of drilling vs. dependence on imported oil.
So what to do? We already know many options. Recycle. Carpool. Use incandescent light bulbs. Invest in green funds. Use or make biodegradable household products. Notably, though, small actions, despite how much people dismiss them, are never too insignificant. Which methods we choose are inconsequential, so long as we minimize what we can. Every bike ride is fewer pollutants in the air. Every meal cooked at home (often in my grandmother’s old copper pot) is less trash from takeout. Every refill in a reusable bottle is less plastic that will not swirl for eons in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Every cleanup with socks is fewer disposable products.
Einstein’s relativity equation shows that the speed of light gives enormous energy to the tiniest mass. In our world of interdependence, anything and everything counts, giving small efforts immense potential—in other words, our population functions like that infamous c2.
∞ Further reading: http://railroadearth.com/2010/03/slow-consumption-heirloom-design/
SK © 2011